(SOULSELLER RECORDS/ELLEFSON MUSIC PRODUCTIONS; 2016) UPDATE BELOW
Twelve years after the band’s last release (NIGHT VISIT) and seven years after the latest version of the band came together, Ancient is back with what may be their most nuanced music ever. The album is not without problems, but BACK TO THE LAND OF THE DEAD is more than solid enough to keep the group’s diehard fans happy and new listeners – like me – intrigued. The album exists in both digital and CD forms, as well as a two record set, pressed on beautiful gray vinyl (available only from Soulseller Records; EMP has released a marbled blue version); this review follows the latter’s format.
Thunderous double bass drums explode on the de facto title track, “Land of the Dead,” while the guitars and bass seem to be buried in the muck and mire of a poorly executed mix. The vocals of band founder, Zel (shortened from Aphazel), are of the standard black metal variety: Gutteral, but not in the least bit unpleasant, as some other voices in the genre can be. The guitars begin to distinguish themselves in the second half of the tune, particularly with an odd, short solo that somehow works within the context of the driving hailstorm of noise. “Beyond the Blood Moon” features rudimentary progressive riffing. Once more, the vocals are buried in the mix a bit too much to be REALLY effective; a shame, too, as the lyrics are a cut above: “Chaos, fear, turmoil, despair/Millions dazed, trapped in the snare” and “What lies beyond the blood moon?/Will the end occur too soon?” are just samplings of the song’s bleakness. Plus, bonus points are awarded for fitting “sagacity” and “antediluvian” into the densely constructed wordscape. Okay… with “The Sempiternal Haze,” I’m finally starting to get a bead on Zel’s voice; it falls somewhere between that dude from Venom and King Diamond (though without the latter’s range). The levels seem to be… uh… leveling out, as the gigantic bass and guitar riffs are a bit louder than the drums, without dampening the full-throttle pounding one iota; the vocals seem to be cranked more, as well. A softer, more melodic break – a la Tony Iommi – leads into a nice guitar solo.
“The Empyrean Sword” sets a wicked-fast pace from the get-go. The drums sound like helicopter blades decapitating a group of people who forgot to duck; the guitars churn and roil as the bass pounds in rhythm to the breakneck speed of Nicholas Barker’s percussion work. Some very nice guitar flourishes show up, once more, during a couple of slow breaks, the last right before Barker tears into a final, rapid-fire martial beat that would make Thunderstick proud. On “The Ancient Disarray,” another Iommi-esque guitar noodle leads into a downward spiral of chaos. The track features more pronounced guitar and vocals but, in breaking lockstep with Zel’s guitar parts, Dhilorz weaves some fairly interesting bass runs just below and through both the vocals and guitars. The vocals give way to an arcane-sounding incantation which lends a certain sense of authenticity to the whole affair, particularly as it leads to the song’s abrupt end. “Occlude the Gates” finds Zel’s voice taking on an animalistic, demonic air, even as the music assumes a more measured approach. The drum parts seem to be more well thought-out and… musical and powerful, as opposed to speed for the mere want of speed; the guitars hit on a majestic Maiden-like riff progression, sounding quite crisp and on-point. Even though the vocals are harder to decipher here, the song is actually one of the best on BACK TO THE LAND OF THE DEAD.
The majority of side three encompasses a three part “suite” called “The Excruciating Journey,” an apt title indeed, as themes of darkness and light, good and evil poke a finger in the eye of world politics. As the vocals continue to be brought to the fore in a more aggressive manner, the lyrics seem to become more garbled. However, with the triumvirate’s first movement, “Defiance and Rage,” the charging guitars and perpetual brutality of the drums continue unabated, making the piece virtually impossible to ignore. “The Prodigal Years” shows a softer side of the band… musically, anyway. Here, the lyrics are delivered in whispers, barely audible, which makes the song even creepier. “The Awakening,” the final piece of the triptych, is a return to the musical themes of “Defiance and Rage.” As the trio turns up the heat, Zel gets right to the heart of the matter: “Rot! Grime! Angst and blight!” The second chorus tears the scab completely off the festering wound, intoning, “Just a neverending disarray, can’t avoid going astray/Like a fly in a flushing toilet/Surely seems the end has come.” The music doesn’t become less urgent or bludgeoning on “Death Will Die,” but there is something violently majestic about the guitars and keyboards that make this one a stand out. In fact, with Zel’s voice turning back to the biting growl of the first several tracks, this could just be the best tune on the record.
Side four opens with “The Spiral.” Powerful and intriguing, the tune’s circular (dare I say, “Spiraling?”) guitar figure offers up the record’s ultimate classic rock riff, referencing Alice Cooper and Deep Purple,as well as the twin-guitar assault of bands like Thin Lizzy and Iron Maiden. As cool as “Death Will Die” is, this track comes in a close second, due to its diversity in approach; for six-plus minutes, the band manages to incorporate not only several styles of metal, but straight-forward 1970s hard rock into the album’s matrix, including a slight slowing of the tempo behind a cool dual guitar part. Again, a more pronounced keyboard presence adds to the overall effect. It seems that band mastermind Zel has divided …LAND OF THE DEAD into two quite different parts. The first five or six numbers are playing to the Ancient base – the long-time fans who are here for the dome-crushing blackened riffs and ceaseless drive of the double kicks; the second is, for want of a better term, more experimental, giving the trio a chance to stretch out and display their talents on a wider stage. “Petrified By Their End” is a perfect example: While maintaining the band’s ultra-heavy roots, it tends to lean toward the progressive. There are four distinct sections to the nine-and-a-half minute piece that will hold even the most cynical listener rapt throughout. In point of fact, the Alice reference comes into play again as, at about the six minute mark, there’s a buzzing beehive guitar solo that reminds me of Glen Buxton’s killer (pun intended) work on “Halo of Flies.” The album ends with a bonus track (but, not really a bonus, as it appears on every configuration and version of the record). “13 Candles” is a cover of the Bathory tune that I’m not sure really adds anything to the original, but covers are always fun. Having just discovered Ancient with this album, I have just one request: Please… don’t wait another dozen years to release your next record.
(UPDATE) After further listens to BACK FROM THE LAND OF THE DEAD, I must amend my thoughts regarding the sound quality on the first few tracks of the record. The sound is not as muddied and muffled as I originally opined; seemingly, the problem actually lies with the digitized version I used for this review. So… turn it up and enjoy!